Friday, February 25, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 320: Matthew Paul Olmos

Matthew Paul Olmos

Hometown: Los Angeles

Current Town: Brooklyn

Q:  Tell me about your upcoming show at Mabou Mines.

A:  This is my 2nd year in the Mabou Mines/Suite Resident Artist Program, in which the first year focuses on exploration and in the second focuses on bringing a piece to production level.

It is a piece entitled The Nature of Captivity, based on The Dog Catcher Riots, about a family that gets run off from their home, and then the play turns itself around and we look at the people who ran the family off. It’s a little socialist and a little animal rights, but it’s pretty fucked up and funny too. I dunno how to describe it. But I’m ridiculously indebted to the team in the room, and who have worked with me in the past, it’s such a great example of the many together elevating a piece to place it could never have gotten to on its own.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  For the first time, I’m returning to the world of an older piece. Not a sequel, but almost a companion piece to i put the fear of méxico in’em; it takes place some years after the current drug wars in México. The play originated after I read a letter printed in the Los Angeles Times from a Tijuana resident addressed to her government. In the letter she painted the picture of what life had become since these wars had grown wild, and at the end of the letter, she asked the very simple question, “How do you expect us to stay here?”

And I began to wonder what if the cities and towns in México gave way to ghost’towns. What if dust settled the country over? What if the entire of México became nothing more than a fossil of the people who used to live there? What happens when a government can no longer protect its citizens? And what’s sorta ironic, is that after I began the mental notes for this one, it actually began to happen sorta in some places in México, so it’ll be interesting to see how the situation and the play turn out.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  In 2nd grade, at Arroyo Vista Elementary, a new student named Roland started mid’year. And I remember very distinctly his first day at recess; he stepped out into the yard and tried to join a group of us in the playground area. He was accompanied by another boy, Brian, who I think sat next to him in class and thus they’d already started a friendship. In any case, this group I was with included the cool kids of the school. And on this particular day, one of the cooler boys stopped short, turned to Roland and said, “What do you think you’re doing?” To which Roland and Brian just stood; froze. The cool boy went further, “You can’t come with us.” And very quickly Brian led Roland away from us, retreating to the opposite side of the playground. There was laughter, heckles. And as my group ran off into the imagination of the playground, I remember standing back. My friend asked what I was doing, I gave some excuse, like I had to do something or had other plans. Really, a 2nd grader with other plans.

So instead, I walked over to where Roland and Brian were sitting on the bottom part of a slide. Brian looked up, “Did they kick you out too?” I lied and told them that they had. I didn’t want them to feel bad.

I don’t remember what happened the next day, but I remember I spent at least that one recess with Roland and Brian, pretending to be an outcast like they had. It is my earliest memory of feeling something was not right. That certain people were treating others unfairly. And that I never wanted to be on the wrong side of that. (Believe me, I’ve been on the wrong side of that many, many times since then, but like to think I learned it was wrong, in that 2nd grade recess, even if I’ve failed to be as smart in life as I was that day over twenty-five years ago).

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  I have this daydream that theatre allows itself to be more fucked up. For all the invigorating pieces I see, it is still a very safe art’form, at least in this country. While I wish it that we could take politics and social issues to the streets and make people pay attention. I don’t think it’s possible. People who are not into theatre have their view of it and that will never change. No matter what we put onstage. Even with certain artists trying to change that, I daydream it that we could just…be drastic.

I’m talkin’ rival’fuckin theatre companies, like Partial Comfort kicking the shit out of Soho Rep, not like artistically, but like in the streets. I wanna see HERE Arts throw a burning brick into a press performance by The Civilians, and then see, from out of nowhere, The Public Theater seek retaliation. I want the general public to read about playwrights Sam Hunter and Carla Ching getting into a fistfight in the Crime Section of the Post. I want them to know that there is blood and guts going on in what we do. We want theatre to be dangerous again? We might haffta start from the outside in on that one. (disclaimer: Matthew is a fan of all those mentioned)

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  What inspires me daily is everyone who just does the work. An actor or actress who shows up at first read through and have clearly already gone over the script multiple times and have educated questions about the piece. A director who doesn’t dance around or on top of what is or isn’t working, but rather challenges and isn’t afraid of being challenged. Producers who nevermind what they’ve been told to mind and follow their hearts. Writers who don’t just put their own neuroses or personal ticks onstage because it is enjoyable for them, and nevermind the rest of us who have to sit through something neither relevant, nor even very interesting.

There are so many beautiful talents out there doing everything their gifts allow to create great theatre. Even if it is an individual performance in a shit play; or a silent and confident direction on an over’produced classic. Even if that relevant play doesn’t work at all. People who give a shit about this what they do; both in their work and their choices. These are the people who inspire me to get off my ass and try harder every day. Who make me want to try past my serious self-doubt and harshly critical side. I am inspired by artists and theatre folk out bring it, in every sense of the catch phrase.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  What I find myself floundering in aspiration to is theatre that asks something both of its participants and audiences. While I too am irritated at theatre that doesn’t “let me in,” I am perhaps more offended by theatre that has very little to even let me in to. Alright, so yes, in the moment, perhaps I am screaming inside my head “Please End!” to some experimental or pretentious piece that hasn’t bothered clueing me in on whatever it is its doing. I am guilty of being on both sides of this scenario.

However, I just cannot muster the respect for a piece that asks nothing of me, that is content for me to just sit there and suck air.

Writers like Thomas Bradshaw, Young Jean Lee, Tommy Smith, they are not (or don’t seem to me) to be after audiences that wish to just sit back and enjoy the evening’s entertainment, they seem to be asking something more of their audiences. To think and question what is in front of them. To discuss after the lights have come up. To dismiss their work even. But under no circumstances are you to sit back for ninety minutes, then leave the theatre and shrug your shoulders. There are certain theatre companies, large and small, who seem happy enough putting up what-they-call-theatre which poses nothing to the audience other than they pay for a ticket, sit and be amused, before exiting as quietly as they first came in. With no change in them, nor the performers. In fact, the entire evening has been closer to pressing pause than anything else.

And thus theatre becomes irrelevant.

So for me, what theatre excites me and I wish I could accomplish is that what wishes to hold a dialogue with their audience, one that is equally participatory. Whether artists who can accomplish this succeed or fail, I don’t give a shit; I will continue to show up, to buy my ticket as soon as they go on’sale because I am eager to be in their audience, to be challenged.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Something I’m beginning to learn the long way is to not only embrace questioning, but be willing to make changes afterwards.

It is very easy, sometimes, to come up with a pretty good first or second draft of a play; you have many moments that work, there is an overall arc to the piece. All in all you think to yourself, “this is decent.” And in many ways you are happy with it. And in your own arrogant way, you think to yourself, “It’s already better than half the shit out there.”

And hopefully, if you are doing your job, you’ll work through the script with a director, actors, etc., and listen to them when they ask you questions, challenge what you’ve written, and communicate to you what they are getting from the piece. You’ll create an environment that aims not only to give you feedback, but asks every person in the room to ask really deep questions about what it is you’re doing with this play and what it means in the world around us.

And then there’s the playwright back in their bedroom, or barstool, with all these notes. And you begin to read over your script again, and some of the changes you have been thinking over…they just seem so big. And you become afraid to mess with the parts of the script that already work. So you begin to just only tinker. Or clean up certain scenes. You begin to question how well a reading went, and theorize that is why certain parts didn’t work. Perhaps you’ve already rented a space, or scheduled a public reading, and you think to yourself that with this one talented actress or this one skilled actor, the script will fly regardless.

I find that, often, writers are too afraid to turn everything they’ve written onto its head and address the true problems inside it. We don’t want to damage the sections of the piece that already work. So we try this patch’job, or pretend the missing pieces will not be missed. Or we think that the story we are telling doesn’t need to go any further. That this one aspect of whatever topic we’re writing about is enough. We let certain blames fall onto the characters onstage, as opposed to digging deeper and presenting a play that discusses why those characters are flawed to begin with. We let our script run along the surface because we are too scared and too lazy to try to write something much more complex and difficult.

It is our job both as writers and as people to always question, but not to stop there. Rather to dig into ourselves for answers, and when we find them, to have the courage to completely disassemble something we’ve worked so hard on. To not settle for something good, but try for something that scares the shit out of you instead.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The Nature of Captivity runs March 3rd through 7th at the ToRoNaDa space in Performance Space 122 at 7:30pm. It is directed by Victor Maog and features Keith Eric Chappelle, Sarah Nina Hayon, Chantel Cherisse Lucier, and Juan Francisco Villa; plus set design/costumes by Deb O.; sound design by Daniel Kluger; lighting design by James Clotfelter; movement/choreography by Jenny Golonka; stage managed by Neal Kowalsky; and produced by Brandi Bravo. To RSVP:
For more information: or

Keep an eye out for a world-premiere of i put the fear of méxico in’em in the spring of 2012, though I can’t officially announce yet.


Chisa said...

Right on, Matt. Right the fuck on.
I can't wait to be invited into your piece next week.

Susie said...

Good stuff Matt! Look forward to attending another one of your plays in the future :)

Joseph said...

Can't wait to see what you've created Matt - We all think your work is fantastic!!!

Miso said...

Inspiring kick ass interview! Raising hell IS a viable way to save our dying art form.